US-backed Syrian forces say they are closing in on Islamic State-held Raqqa and expected to reach the city outskirts in a few weeks, as a US Marines artillery unit deployed to help the campaign.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia alliance including the Kurdish YPG, is the main US partner in the war against Islamic State in Syria. Since November it has been working with the US-led coalition to encircle Raqqa.
“We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo said.
Coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said the additional US forces would be working with local partners in Syria and would not have a frontline role.
Some 500 US personnel are already in Syria to help the fight against IS. A 400-strong additional deployment which arrived in recent days comprised both Marines and Army Rangers, Dorrian said, adding they were there temporarily.
Coalition airstrikes killed 23 civilians, including eight children, in the countryside north of Raqqa on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor said. The coalition said it was investigating the incident.
Islamic State is also being fought in Syria by the Russian-backed Syrian military, and by Syrian rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner with Turkish backing in northern Syria and Jordanian backing in southern Syria.
On the other major flank of the assault on IS, Iraqi forces aim to dislodge the militant group from west Mosul within a month.
This week, the SDF cut the road between Raqqa and the jihadists’ stronghold of Deir al-Zor province – the last main road out of the city which is bordered to the south by the Euphrates River.
Dorrian said the effort to isolate Raqqa was “going very very well” and could be completed in a few weeks. “Then the decision to move in can be made,” he told Reuters by telephone.
The US military alliance with the SDF and YPG has strained relations with US ally Turkey, which views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.